The Road To Here

Let me begin by saying (once again, probably) that I have a new book coming out at the end of March. It’s called The Leaden Heart, and it’s the seventh Tom Harper novel. Safe to say I plan on giving your details before the publication date, and a video trailer is in the works, too. If you’d care to order it, be aware that amazon is the most expensive site currently. I’d suggest here or here – both significantly cheaper and with free UK delivery. It appears that both companies full their proper taxes in the UK.

the leaden heart revised

That’s the self-promotion out of the way. But with something fresh hurtling down the tracks, I found myself wondering just how did I get here? I don’t like the word journey, but it’s been a long strange trip. I probably wrote my first novel when I was 20, its name long since forgotten. I do remember that it was very heavily influenced by Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut (well, it was 1974) and not very good. By which, of course, I mean derivative, not as clever as it imagined, and piss-poor.

A couple more fairly mainstream novels arrived after I moved to the US. Both naïve, but I was young, those were different times, and I was learning my craft. And then, a detective novel, set in Cincinnati, where I was living. It received some interest, from a couple of publishers and an agent, who wanted me to rewrite it as a young adult novel, as I recall. But in the end it all went nowhere. I was hugely disappointed, but in retrospect, I’m grateful. While some of the idea and characters were okay, it simply wasn’t a good book. Naivete and a crime novel don’t mix, and I still had plenty of growing up to do, even if I didn’t realise it.

My next book was written in 1992/93. Called Career Opportunities, after the Clash song, and set in the London punk scene of 76-78, with the main character an American student over there study. Audacity on my part. I hadn’t been there at the time. I’d already left England. Hell, I hadn’t really been in London much at all in my life.

I still have the manuscript, I remember the general story. I’ve never dared look at it again. I’m sure it’s cute. And that was the problem. My writing was cute. It told a story. Once in a while it could tell it reasonably well. But it couldn’t pierce to the kernel of truth at the heart of a person or a tale. My friend Thom Atkinson has always been able to do that. He’s simply one of the best short story writers and playwrights I know, and we’ve been close for 35 years. Read a piece of his here and you’ll see what I mean. He has it.

I kept writing, of course, but it was mostly music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. They kept me very busy for a number of years and paid well. Important with a mortgage and a young son. But also great writing discipline. By the time I returned to fiction in 2005 I had a clearer vision, even if I was seeing a much older version of Leeds.

I’d become fascinated by the history of my hometown and started to discover it, as best I could on annual trips which involved walking and buying books, and finding old volumes on eBay. Somehow, in all there, I found my soul, my kernel of truth.

The first book I write set in 1730s Leeds was called The Cloth Searcher and featured cloth merchant Tom Williamson and his wife Hannah. A minor character was the town constable, Richard Nottingham.

The setting, the characters, the writing all had something. Just not quite the right thing, though. An agent liked what I was doing, although not that particular book. Try again, I was told.

I did. But first I thought a while. A crime novel, even one set in Leeds in the 1730s, was going to make more sense when someone from the right side of the law was the main character.

That involved a shift. Richard Nottingham became the protagonist, with his family (Mary, Rose, Emily) fairly central, along with his deputy, John Sedgwick. Poor Tom Williamson found himself on the periphery.

I write the book. In 2010 it was finally published (and the road from writing to that is another story). It was The Broken Token.

It might seem that things really started there. It often seems that way to me. But it was had begun 36 years earlier. Just the blink of an eye, really…

My City of Immigrants

In the light of all the intolerance and hatred in the world at the moment, it feels important to me to say this.

 

When I was in my early teens, at the tail end of the 1960s, I used to take the bus into town every Saturday morning for a look around the record and book shops in Leeds. Even clothes, because in those distant days I had an interest in fashion.

It was a trip down Chapeltown Road, through what was a vital, flourishing Afro-Caribbean community, where people from SE Asia were also making their home. Out of the window I’d be intrigued by signs for the Polish Club, the Serbian Club, Ukrainian Club. We’d pass a Sikh Gurdwara that had once been a Congregation Baptist Church, and further down, a synagogue. Going through Sheepscar, I could see all the Irish pubs – the Roscoe, the Victoria, the Pointer, the Regent, and more, all before I reached the city centre and hopped off outside the ABC cinema.

That was one bus ride, in one part of town. It told a story of immigration that wasn’t all recent. It never occurred to me that these people were any less Leeds than me. They were here, they were making their lives, working, raising their children, the same as everyone else.

The first reference to a Jew in Leeds that I’ve seen is from middle of the 18th century. The same for a black, an army drummer boy. By the 1830s there was a small Jewish community here, and by 1840 there was a Jewish cemetery and services were held in a loft on Bridge Street, with a total of 56 Jews identified in the 1841 census.

Certainly by the 1830s there was an Irish community in Leeds, centred on the Bank, the poorest area of town. As was common in England at the time, they were sometimes regarded as less than human, relegated to the very worst part of town. The famines of the 1840s brought more Irish immigrants, many of whom worked at the mills in the area.

                               St Patrick’s Church                                           Victorian court on the Bank

The big Jewish influx came towards the end of the 19th century, fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Understandably, the several thousand who arrived in Leeds settled where there was the safety of other Jews and the common language of Yiddish – in the Leylands, just north of the centre.

                                                 The Leylands around 1900

The early 1900s saw a very tiny group of Chinese in Leeds as well as a few Poles settling here. A few Italians had lived here since the 1880s.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly; there were tensions between Irish and English, between English and Jews, which culminated in a riot in 1917, when youths charged into the Leylands, believing none of the Jewish community had volunteered to fight in World War 1, which was very much wrong.

An Indian soldier served with the Leeds Pals during that war, and quite possibly the first Indian Sikh settled here in 1930, with the first Muslim in 1943, with more arriving from the Indian subcontinent in the early 1950s.

By then, of course, the Windrush had docked, and West Indian immigrants had begun to arrive, with some making their homes here, followed by others.

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West Indian Carnival, Chapeltown Road, 1980

But all of those followed those Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs who come during World War II to fight, then married and settled here.

Since then, people have arrived from many other countries – quite possibly most of the nations on Earth.

The point is that immigration is nothing new in Leeds. It’s been happening for centuries. Go back several generations and most of us have our family origins somewhere else. An ancestor of mine arrived here from East Yorkshire in the 1820s. In those days, that made him an outsider, but he was one of thousands drawn here by industry and the promise of money.

All through my books, I’ve had immigrants. There’s Henry, Joe Buck’s black servant in the 1730s, a recurring character in the Richard Nottingham series. Romany travellers in Cold Cruel Winter. The Irish are all through the Tom Harper books, and a focus on the Jews in the Leylands in Two Bronze Pennies. West Indian musicians – working as street cleaners – pop up in Dark Briggate Blues. Perhaps they’re there to make a point, but really, it’s simply a reflection of life as it was.

The fact is that people want a better life for themselves and their children. They want to feel safe. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, it’s a common human impulse. And once they settle here, these people are as much Leeds as the rest of us. They’ve added and contributed to my hometown and made it a better place.

I’m proud that my city is a city of immigrants.

How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

Hanging Psalm revised

Thank You and A Sense of Place

I hope you won’t mind if I begin with a bit of self-congratulation: Publisher’s Weekly has given Free From All Danger a starred review. I’m immensely proud of that for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s impossible to know what any reader will make of what a writer does, so something that positive means a great deal. Secondly, it’s the seventh in the series, arriving four years after the last one. That’s quite a space of time. All the previous six achieved starred reviews, so there’s a giant sigh of relief that they like this one as much. Richard Nottingham is older this time around, a changed man in some ways. I’m just happy people still like him.

Anyway…Christmas and the end of 2017 are just a few days away. I wanted to wish you all a lovely time, and a happy, healthy 2018 – and to thank you for your support. I really do value it.

At this time of year I like looking around Leeds and thinking about my family connections to the place. They crop up quite a bit in my novels. References I know, that I enjoy putting in.

The biggest is probably the Victoria pub from the Tom Harper novels. Annabelle is the landlady, but from the 1920s to the 1940s, it was my great-grandfather who ran the place. My father lived in Cross Green, and as a boy he’d walk over in the summer so he could go upstairs and play the piano for hours on end. Impossible not to celebrate a connection like that.

victoria pub

In fact, a little of the idea of including the place at all came from a book he wrote, that was never published. His main character was a female servant from Barnsley who came to a pub in Sheepscar as a servant. She ended up running the place and owning three bakeries. His maternal grandparents were from Barnsley, and originally ran a pub in Hunslet before taking over the Victoria. And, in the Harper series, Annabelle runs, then sells, three bakeries. So thank you, Dad. You have me a lot in that.

victoria1

Dan Markham’s flat in Chapel Allerton (Dark Briggate Blues) is in the building where my parents made their first home, and where I spent my first year. Curiously, a reader told me once that her daughter was living there now. His office on Albion Place is where my father had his office.

2004113_45626467

Lottie Armstrong’s house in The Year of the Gun is the house where I grew up. The present owner graciously showed me around, and it’s very much the same as it was, I’m pleased to say.

It’s four years now since I moved back to Leeds, and honestly, I’ve never felt more connected to a place in my life.

Free From All Danger – The Launch

On Thursday I officially launched Free From All Danger. You know that, of course; I’ve been talking about it for a long time.

It was a great evening, about 50 people turned up (some joined the Leeds Library on the spot; others plan to do so very soon, which makes me happy).

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The audience arrives

And it all finished up with the splendid Hill Bandits performing an aching, grieving version of Our Captain Cried – the song that gives the book its title.

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The Hill Bandits

And people enjoyed the performance. Some said they’d never come across anything quite like it before, the mix of words and music. And the music (composed and recorded by an old friend, Chris Emmerson, with the fiddle piece behind Con the Blind Fiddler composed and performed by Hal Parfitt-Murray of the Danish band Basco) was excellent, atmospheric, and moving at times.

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The author and composer share a moment

I know many of you couldn’t be there. And I didn’t want the moment to simply vanish. After all, I’d put in a month’s rehearsal to try and make sure the timings worked. It was more intense than I’d expected, a huge step outside my usual comfort zone.

Over the weekend I recorded a version of the soundtrack. Nothing fancy on the voice, just dry, using the mic on my computer, then a quick mixdown with the music. I hope you’ll fancy giving it a listen:

One small warning. It will eat up 25 minutes of your time.

Meanwhile, I’ve included a few pictures from the event. Thanks to all who came, to the Leeds Library and Leeds Big Bookend, and Waterstones for coming and selling copies of the book.

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Just remember, that time of year is coming soon, and books make great gifts. Especially, I’m told, crime novels set in Leeds in the 1730s. Would I steer you wrong?

Free From All Danger 1

On the publication of Free From All Danger

Today, Free From All Danger, the seventh novel to feature Richard Nottingham, the Constable of Leeds in the 1730s is published.

It feels as if I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time.

In many ways, I have. His last outing, in Fair and Tender Ladies, was more than four years ago. But coming back to him was like visiting a close friend. One who’s older, wearier, who looks at life a little differently.

Richard and I, we knew we had unfinished business. I’d originally planned to have eight books in the series, enough to tell his story properly, to let it unfold. Of course, it’s not simply about him. The books have always been about relationships. With family, with the men who work for him and the people in Leeds. They sit at the heart of it all, just as they do in life.

FFinvitation pic4

It’s a period that’s been sadly unexplored in fiction, especially in mysteries. But in Leeds, it was a decade of change, as the town began to grow fat on the sale of woollen cloth, and the merchants became the men who ran everything. And the poor…stayed poor. More of them, drawn by the chance of making a fortune. But opportunity was a rare thing.

It’s always been the lives of the poor that have interested me. They go unremarked and unremembered. Curiously, even Richard Nottingham, who was a real person, and a privileged one, seems to have left no trace; I’ve been unable to find any mention of his death (or birth, for that matter) in any parish register. If I make readers feel what life was like for those in Leeds at the time, then maybe I’ve done something right.

Of course, I’d love for people to buy the book. But I also understand that hardbacks are outside the price range of many. The ebook will appear on February 1, 2018, when the book is published in America. Or reserve it at your library. If they don’t have it, ask them to order a copy. Honestly, it all helps. If you don’t know the series, they’re waiting out there for you.

Finally, if you’re in Leeds on November 9, come to the book launch. It’s free, of course, a performance piece with a specially-composed soundtrack and a little live music at the end. At The Leeds Library on Commercial Street, 7pm. Email them and reserve a seat, though.

Richard and I both thank you.

Free From All Danger – Once More

Two weeks from today, Free From All Danger will be published. It feels as if I’ve waited a long time for this. I have, really. It’s four and a half years since the last Richard Nottingham novel. Back then, Richard and I knew we still had some unfinished business.

So it deserves a big launch. November 9 it will have one, with a specially-composed soundtrack and some live music, to be held at the glorious Leeds Library, the oldest subscription library in England. The event is free; all you need to do is reserve a seat. Waterstones will bring copies of the book for you to buy, of course.

Two weeks,,,fourteen days. In the meantime, I’ve made another trailer for the book, to give a feel of it…

 

And here’s the first one that I did a few months ago…

(Two days later I’ll be taking parting in a second performance of It Happened At Leeds, about the Leeds Convention of 1917, at Chapel FM in Seacroft. Pay as you feel.)

 

Free Time Travel

Books are portals to other places, other times. They possess that fragment of magic to transport a reader, to wrap them in another world.

I hope that’s what I’ve managed with Free From All Danger. To take you to 1736, to walk through Leeds with Richard Nottingham, to see the place through his eyes as he returns as Constable. To hear the noise, smell it all, see the faces…

Some of might have have read the previous six books in the series. The last appeared in 2013, more than four years ago. At the end of the last book, Fair and Tender Ladies, Richard retired.

But things change, live never stands still, and circumstances bring him back. The big question for him is whether he can still do the job…

 

“Sometimes he felt like a ghost in his own life. The past had become his country, so familiar that its lanes and its byways were imprinted on his heart. He remembered a time when he’d been too busy to consider all the things that had gone before. But he was young then, eager and reckless and dashing headlong towards the future. Now the years had found him. His body ached in the mornings, he moved more slowly; he was scarred inside and out. His hair was wispy and grey and whenever he noticed his face in the glass it was full of creases and folds, like the lines on a map. Sometimes he woke, not quite sure who he was now, or why. There was comfort in the past. There was love.

Richard Nottingham crossed Timble Bridge and started up Kirkgate, the cobbles slippery under his shoes. At the Parish Church he turned, following the path through the yard to the graves. Rose Waters, his older daughter, married and dead of fever before she could give birth. And next to her, Mary Nottingham, his wife, murdered because of his own arrogance; every day he missed her; missed both of them. He stooped and picked a leaf from the grass by her headstone. October already. Soon there would be a flood of dead leaves as the year tumbled to a close.”

 

Bringing Richard back was like spending time with an old, trusted friend and a long time away. I treasured it. I value Richard, his family, and I want to take you with me to spend time with them, to live their lives.

My copies of the book arrived on Monday, and it was a thrill hold hold one, to open it. By now, you’d think I’d be used to it. But this is…special. Some of you had emailed to ask when Richard would return. Here’s your answer.

The book is published in the UK on October 31 – four months later elsewhere. If you’re close to Leeds on Thursday, November 9, I hope you’ll come to the launch for it, at the Leeds Library on Commercial St (the oldest subscription library in England, in the same building since 1808. There will be a specially-composed soundtrack, and some live music. Starts at 7 pm, and I’d love to fill the place…

Obviously, I hope you’ll buy the book. I’d love that. But I know that many can’t afford it. Borrow it from your library – support libraries in every way you can. If they don’t have it on order, request it…

More than anything, I hope you enjoy it. And thank you, because without readers, writers are nothing.

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May You Live In Interesting Times

There appear to be some mighty things afoot. Autumn is going to be very busy. Three – yes, three! – books coming out, although the real highlight is going to be Free From All Danger, the first Richard Nottingham novel in over four years. The proofs have been completed and it’s with the printer, due out in October.

Richard and his family have always had a place deep in my heart, so it’s only right that the book launch should be a celebration. It’s going to be at the Leeds Library on Commercial Street on Thursday, November 9, at 7 pm (free, of course, but please contact them and book a place). It’s going to be an event, with a script and a specially-composed soundtrack by Chris Emmerson. There may also be some live music.

To start the ball rolling, here’s the first trailer for the book

May 2018 will see the publication of The Tin God, the sixth Tom Harper novel. My publisher said this about it: “…this latest entry continues the ongoing series themes of social change and progress, tradition vs modernisation, female emancipation, the grinding poverty and social injustice of the times, to superb effect, highlighting all too vividly the tensions caused by such rapid social change: what is highly welcome for some being anathema to others.  (Such tensions being all too evident in politics today).

 

Once again, devoted family man Tom Harper and his spirited wife Annabelle, battling passionately for the causes she believes in as an early pioneer on the long march towards women’s equality, make for thoroughly likeable lead protagonists, and the plot skips along at an impressive pace, conjuring up a compelling sense of rising tension as the election approaches.”

 

The launch event for this one will be a little different; it will be folded into an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote at Leeds Central Library (2018, of course, marks the centenary of some women receiving the vote, although the exhibition highlights that many could vote in local elections before that. It will be curated by independent academic Vine Pemberton Joss, whose suggestion sparked the book.

 

Lastly, it looks as if Dan Markham from Dark Briggate Blues will star in a play. And a play with live jazz, at that. Nothing’s set in stone, but it seems likely to happen at Leeds Jazz Fest next July, and will mostly be a celebration of Studio 20, Leeds’ pioneering jazz club ibn the 1950s. No title yet, but the next 12 months promise to be very exciting.

Coming in October – Free From All Danger

I hadn’t planned on another post quite so quickly. But I’ve received the cover for the seventh Richard Nottingham book (yes, it’s been over four years since the last one), and it’s wonderful – see the evil on that face.

So here it is, the cover, along with the blurb.

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October, 1736. Lured out of retirement to serve as Constable once again, Richard Nottingham finds Leeds very different to the place he remembers. Many newcomers have been attracted by the town’s growing wealth – but although the faces have changed, the crimes remain the same, as Nottingham discovers when a body is found floating in the River Aire, its throat cut.

 

What has changed is the fear that pervades the town. With more bodies emerging and witnesses too frightened to talk, Nottingham realizes he’s dealing with a new kind of criminal, someone with no respect for anything or anyone. Someone who believes he’s beyond the law; someone willing to brutally destroy anyone who opposes him. To stop him, Nottingham will need to call in old favours, rely on trusted friendships, and seek help from some very unlikely sources.